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Grassroots organization Hamkae Center celebrates ‘Asian American joy and glow’ on 10th anniversary

Hamkae Center members holding signs at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic with ADAMS Compassionate Healthcare Network in 2022 (courtesy Sookyung Oh)

Today (Thursday) marks a decade of community service, youth leadership, political activism and civic engagement in Virginia by the Hamkae Center.

Over the last 10 years, the local nonprofit has dedicated itself to achieving “social, racial, and economic justice” through Asian American mobilization and advocacy at both the state and local levels, per its website.

“We want to not only help meet the immediate needs of Asian Americans living in Virginia, but we also want to make lasting change,” Hamkae Center Director Sookyung Oh said. “…What we really want is for Asian Americans to be actively engaged in society, in this democracy. If we can create those on-ramps for folks to be able to do that and be a political home, then that’s what we’re striving for. ”

Though it works around the state, Hamkae Center is based in Fairfax County with offices in Annandale and Centreville. Its mission has expanded alongside the local Asian American community, which has grown from 17.6% of the county’s population in 2010 to over 20% — one-fifth of the population.

“Over the years, Hamkae Center has really become much more pan-Asian,” she said. “So if you look at our staff and board, we have folks who are Korean heritage like me…but also Filipino, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese. It’s really expanded so that we were becoming more of an Asian American group.”

A Virginia affiliate of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the group was founded in 2012 as NAKASEC Virginia with the goal of organizing with undocumented Korean Americans, according to Oh.

It was among the organizations that advocated for undocumented immigrants who attended high school in the state to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and state financial aid for college.

“It’s our work with undocumented Asian Americans that we were able to push those changes through the state General Assembly in 2020 and in 2021,” Oh said.

Oh also expressed pride in Hamkae Center’s education-related activism, including its role in leading a “statewide, multi-racial, multi-faith” movement against proposed revisions to Virginia’s history education standards.

On a more hyperlocal level, the Hamkae Center functions as a community resource, offering assistance with citizenship and public health benefit applications. According to Oh, it recently launched an Asian American Small Business Counseling program to help Korean Americans in Northern Virginia navigate complex corporate procedures and language barriers as they kickstart their own businesses.

“To date, I think we’ve supported about four entrepreneurs in starting new businesses, and that’s pretty cool,” Oh said.

To reflect its evolving focus, the group rebranded in 2021 to “Hamkae,” the Korean word for “together.” Oh says the new name aims to “honor [their] Korean American roots” while making it clearer that the organization works with all Asian Americans, not just Korean Americans.

“We want Asian Americans to be proud of their individual heritages, and there is strength when we can come together as Asian Americans,” Oh said. “So, that’s why we chose Hamkae because we were like, ‘This is our future.’ Our future is Asian American.”

Tonight, the Hamkae Center will mark its 10th anniversary — an accomplishment “for any organization that cares about promoting active civic life,” Oh says — with a Pursuing Our Dreams fundraiser at Crescendo Studios (8101A Lee Highway), a music school in Merrifield.

While tickets for the event are sold out, Oh emphasized that those interested can still support the 10th anniversary celebration through donations, with all funds going towards the Hamkae Center’s equity and community work.

“I am so, so proud of the work of my coworkers, my colleagues, the board and all the community leaders and volunteers. That’s part of why I’m so excited about this fundraiser on Thursday,” Oh said. “It’s going to be an opportunity to celebrate and really just bask in that Asian American joy and glow.”

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, the issues concerning Northern Virginia’s Asian American community will inevitably change and evolve. But Oh says the Hamkae Center will remain consistent in its dedication to combatting those issues and making “Fairfax County, Northern Virginia and the Commonwealth of Virginia the type of place where all of us can do well and have a chance to live a life with dignity.”

“What we’ve been doing the last 10 years we will be doing for the next 10 years,” Oh said. “Listening to community members, Asian Americans in particular…and then coming together to find folks who want to do something about that [and] providing the training and the space so that people can build confidence in their own leadership.”

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